Always single and single again women: A qualitative study
Karen Gail Lewis
What is it like to be a single woman today? Are the experiences of women who have always been single different from those who find themselves single again after having been married? How can family therapists promote the development of single women both individually and relationally? The purpose of this phenomenological, multiple-case study was to investigate perceptions of being single among heterosexual single women between the ages of 30 and 65. Nine focus group interviews and a semistructured, mailed questionnaire were used to collect the data. Constant comparative analyses were used to develop the findings. The findings were organized around the most salient theme that emerged from the analyses: single women have unresolved or unrecognized ambivalences about being single. This overarching theme was supported by three subassertions: (a) single women are aware of both the advantages and the drawbacks of being single; (b) single women are ambivalent about the reasons for their singleness; (c) although content with being single, many women simultaneously experience feelings of loss and grief. Implications for the clinical practice of family therapy and future research on single women are discussed.
Single women are living on the cusp of change (Anderson & Stewart, 1994). Stereotypes of spinsters and old maids are outmoded, but there are few new descriptions of the single woman. Anderson and Stewart (1994) note that the media dichotomously depicts single women as “pathetic leftovers from the marriage market,” unhappy and desperate, or “power-obsessed barracudas bent only on greedily acquiring the empty rewards of money and fame” (p. 14). Even the popular Cathy cartoon reflects the dual images of stigma and glamorization (Lewis, 1994). Schwartzberg, Berliner, and Jacob (1995), in Single in a Married World, have started looking at where adult singlehood fits into the life cycle framework. However, more work is needed to develop a complete understanding of the single life style.
The field of family therapy has not kept abreast of the changing lives of single women. Both in clinical practice and in research, there is a significant gap in understanding one of the fastest growing life-stage populations. As a result, there has been a persistent call by family therapists for more research on issues relevant for single women (Sprenkle, 1993, 1994; Sprenkle & Lyness, 1995). The study presented here is one step toward filling that gap. The purpose of the study was to understand the experience of being a single woman in midlife (ages 30-65) from the perspective of women themselves and to investigate their perceptions of familial influences on their images of themselves as single women. Qualitative methods were utilized because the area of investigation was new and the focus of the study exploratory and phenomenological (Boss, Dahl, & Kaplan, in press; Moon, Dillon, & Sprenkle, 1990). This paper presents the most salient themes from the study and discusses clinical implications of the research.
A computer search was made of Psych Lit and Sociofile from 1974 to 1995. There were slightly more than 300 entries in the two databases on “single women.” Most of the articles were on very specific subpopulations, such as mentally disturbed low income single mothers (Sands, 1995). Many of the articles dealing with the social and adjustment issues of being single used college women as subjects (Sarch, 1993; Tanfer & Cubbins, 1992). Other articles showed up only because single women were part of the sample (Shore, McCoy, Toonen, & Kuntz, 1988); these papers offered little information of significance to family therapists about single women’s issues. One professional journal devoted a special issue to “Spinsterhood” (Watkins, 1984), but the information is somewhat dated since it was published 12 years ago.
No articles were found for “single women” with the subcategories of “family therapy” or “supervision.” However, three subcategories of studies relevant to family therapy were identified: life cycle and life transitions, therapy, and married versus single. The research on these issues is reviewed below.
Life Cycle and Life Transitions
There is a growing interest in the effect of chronological development on single women, transitioning into the 30s (Kaslow, 1992), into their 30s and 40s (Nadelson, 1989), into the SOs (Niemela & Lento, 1993), older women who have returned to singlehood by choice or not (Chasteen, 1994; Walters, Carter, Papp, & Silverstein, 1988), and older women whose families expected them to choose a single life (Allen, 1989).
There is also an interest in the stress related to the importance of career and career satisfaction for single women (Anderson & Stewart, 1994; Fong & Amatea, 1992; Schwartzberg et al., 1995). One study looked at previously married women’s stress in returning to a single life, particularly in regard to their decisions about housing, transportation, and leisure activities (Chasteen, 1994). The issue of ambivalence was considered in the literature only in terms of older women wanting to become mothers (Siegel, 1995).
A hand search yielded three other important references, two ground-breaking books and one book chapter. Anderson and Stewart (1994) present an image of today’s successful single women. They interviewed about 90 always single (AS) and single again (SA) women who were “upbeat, positive, and satisfied” (p. 17) with themselves and their lives. Although single and living alone, many of these women were in committed relationships. Those who were not were comfortable with their singleness yet aware of how a man might add to (not define) the quality of their lives. Schwartzberg et al. (1995) offer the first major attempt at a life cycle framework with a place for single adults. Their model has five stages: Not yet married; The thirties: Entering the “Twilight Zone” of singlehood; Midlife (40s to mid-SOs); Later life (SOs to when physical health fails); Elderly (between failing health and death). In addition, they present a clinical application for each life stage and for gay and lesbian singles. Lewis (1994) offers eight developmental tasks for a healthy adjustment to adult singlehood. These include grounding, emotional intimacy, daily needs, mutual empowerment and nurturance, sexual feelings, grieving lost childhood dreams, making peace with parents, and preparing for old age.
In the last decade a little attention has been given to the unique therapy needs of single women. Bankoff (1994) did a comparison of reasons for treatment for women at different life stages. Her results indicate that among all women, single mothers and women who lack life roles such as wife, worker, or student are the most emotionally vulnerable. Rucker (1993) looked at how single women’s need for intimacy impacts their working with a male analyst. Therapists are consistently warned not to pathologize women’s reasons for their singleness (Lewis, 1994; Papp, 1988; Schwartzberg et al., 1995).
Married versus Single
A few studies have compared married and single women on various adjustment dimensions. One study found that single men and women are more likely either to be socially isolated or to have a very active social network than married people (Seccombe & IshiiKuntz, 1994). Married women seem to have better physical health than unmarried women, perhaps because they tend to have more financial resources (Hahn,1993). One study found that married women experience as high a stress level as single mothers in juggling work and family since husbands do not share much of the home responsibilities (Googins & Burden, 1987). An opposite finding was that single mothers had significantly higher levels of stress than married mothers (Fong & Amatea, 1992). Several studies have suggested that both married and single women can have full, contented lives (Anderson & Stewart,1994; Lewis, 1994; Schwartzberg et al., 1995). And there was a special issue of a professional journal devoted to the differences in sexuality for married and single women (Caplan, 1985).
One interesting study found that the television image of single women has changed considerably in the last 30 years. There is an increase in the number of shows about single women and an increase in the status of the (Caucasian) women. This change, however, is more a statement about economics (what will sell) than about advocacy for singleness as a life stage (Atkin, 1991).
Evolving Image of Single Women
Prior to the 1960s, there was a definite stigma attached to being a single woman. The question was not “if” but “when” a woman would marry. A study conducted in the 1950s showed that women remained single primarily for negative reasons, for example, hating men or feeling ugly (Kuhn, 1955). In the 1960s, Helen Gurley Brown (1962/1983), although not generally recognized as a feminist, urged women to be more assertive, own their competence, and keep their options to marry or not. Her work supported the tone ushered in by the sexual revolution, changing the image of the single woman. By the 1970s, there were positive reasons for remaining single, such as more opportunity for personal development and increased freedom (Lowenstein, 1981; Stein, 1976).
In the beginning of the 1980s, Nadelson and Notman (1981) concluded that there were many reasons women did not marry, but a general theme was that being a wife was seen as a subordinate role. Peterson’s (1982) study of single women (ages 20-78) concurred, adding that remaining single was a “form of withdrawal and boycott” (p. 259). During the later 1980s, feminist literature suggested that many women were choosing to remain single (Hicks &Anderson, 1989; Nadelson, 1989; Nadelson & Notman, 1981; Walters et al., 1988). The 1990s have been graced with a new study (Anderson & Stewart, 1994) of successful single women who are leading full and contented lives. Almost all of the women in this study said that having a man would be, as a chapter title put it, the icing on the cake, not the whole cake. The 1990s also opened an exploration of adult singlehood as a separate life stage. As previously mentioned, Schwartzberg et al. (1995) have divided this period into five stages of development, each with its emotional processes, and Lewis (1994) has identified eight developmental tasks for adult singlehood.
The Importance of This Subject for Family Therapists
The field of family therapy is lagging behind in understanding singleness as an adult life stage and its impact on extended families (Sprenkle, 1993, 1994; Sprenkle & Lyness, 1995). Family therapists need to recognize that the term single includes a heterogeneous group of women who face different issues in different phases of their lives (Schwartzberg et al., 1995).
Family therapists need to understand the issues of singleness in order to help single adults accomplish the developmental tasks of singleness (Lewis,1994; Schwartzberg et al., 1995). They also need to understand singleness in order to provide balanced treatment for adults who are involved in relationship decision making. Family therapists often work with young and midlife adults considering a first marriage, divorce, or remarriage. Since most decisions about coupling or uncoupling involve movement out of or into singleness, it is vital for therapists who specialize in relationships to be knowledgeable about the unique issues, the ambivalences, and the advantages and disadvantages of single living across the life span.
It is important for family therapists to understand the ways that singleness interacts with relationship networks, especially friendship and extended family networks. Single adults have reported that their friendship networks are as important to them as family members are to most married adults but find that their friendships are not valued by others the way family relationships are (Schwartzberg et al.,1995). Family therapists also need to be aware of the unique family-of-origin issues common to single women. Single women at midlife have reported feeling intense pressure from their family of origin to marry and/or parental disparagement of achievements outside of marriage (Anderson & Stewart, 1994).
Finally, many of the developmental tasks for single women, such as “creating new rules” (Schwartzberg et al., 1995), “accepting the ambiguity,” and “acknowledging sexual feelings” (Lewis,1994), require women to challenge familial and cultural stereotypes. This study was designed to begin to fill the gap in the family therapy literature on single women and to suggest ways that family therapists can promote both individual and relationship development among single women across the lifespan.
The study was designed in two phases. In the first phase, open-ended questions were explored with single women (n = 37) in focus groups using ethnographic (Spradley, 1979), focus group (Piercy & Nickerson, in press), and phenomenological (Boss et al., in press) interviewing techniques. In the second phase, the findings from the interviews were used to guide the development of a structured questionnaire that was administered to 39 additional single women. Triangulation was achieved by using different participants for the two stages and group interview methodology in one stage and a mailed questionnaire in the second stage. The assertions generated from the data analyses reflect common themes that were voiced by single women in both phases of the study.
Role of the Researchers
The first author has a master’s in social work and an EdD in counseling psychology. She is a clinical member of AAMFT and an approved supervisor. She has over 28 years experience as both a family and a group therapist. She became interested in the subject of single women from two perspectives. As a clinician, she had noted dramatic changes in the ways her single heterosexual women clients spoke about men over the past two decades. Her single female clients, from a wide range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and economic situations, were raising similar questions and concerns about their inability to establish gratifying romantic relationships. In addition, as a woman who has always been single herself (now 51 years old), she was struck by the parallels between what she was hearing from clients and what seemed like a sequence of issues she had tackled and/or continues to tackle in her own life. She felt that the time was ripe to conduct a study exploring the women’s perspectives on their singleness.
The second author has a PhD in educational psychology and is a clinical member of AAMFT. She has 6 years of experience as a family therapist and 10 years of experience as a single again woman and single parent. She was interested in working on the project because she was aware that singles have been neglected in the family therapy literature (Sprenkle, 1993,1994; Sprenkle & Lyness, 1995), and she felt that the study had the potential to help clinicians work more effectively with single women and their families.
The first author designed the study, conducted all of the group interviews, designed the survey form, and did the preliminary data analysis. The second author joined the project after the data had been collected as a co-analyst, peer debriefer and co-author of the research report. The second author was asked to participate in the project both because of her expertise in qualitative research methods and because of her interest in single women. Both researchers began their work on this project with positive experiences of their single lives and positive perceptions of singleness. They shared the belief that both singleness and single parent families tend to be stereotyped and misunderstood. To counteract these positive biases, they made an effort to pay particular attention to the disadvantages and negative statements expressed by the participants.
Participants. To begin the study, the first author placed an ad in a metropolitan newspaper with a circulation of 855,171 stating that she was looking for single women between the ages of 30 and 65 who would be willing to participate in a research study on the experience of being a single woman. Two hundred and fifteen women responded. The first 80 women who responded to the ad were asked to participate in a small group interview; 68 of them agreed to do so. The remainder were told that the first phase was filled and asked to participate in the second phase. Nine focus group interviews were conducted in the first phase. Of the 68 women who were scheduled for a group interview, 37 (54%) actually participated. Participants in the groups were matched on one or two theoretically important characteristics such as type of singleness. All other characteristics were allowed to vary randomly in each group. Demographic characteristics of the women in each group are shown in Table 1. There were four groups of women who had always been single (Groups 2,6,7,8), three groups of women who were single again following death or divorce (Groups 1,4,5), one group that was formed primarily on the basis of age (Group 3), and another on ethnicity (Group 9). Group 3 included AS and SA women with and without children; Group 9 included AS African Americans with and without children. Group interviews. All of the interviews followed a similar format and were videotaped. Each of the nine group interviews lasted 3-4 hours and was guided by a semistructured interview protocol. The protocol was revised after each group session to reflect the themes that had emerged. For example, if a question did not seem to be clear to the participants, it was clarified prior to the next focus group interview. If a new issue arose in a group discussion, a question related to that issue was added to the interview protocol and the questionnaire.
Prior to each interview, the participants were given demographic and permission forms to complete. The demographic information collected included ethnic background of their parents; religion in childhood and currently; socio-economic status during their childhood and within the past year; living situation; age at time of first and consecutive marriages; their height and that of each husband; and questions about their preferences related to marriage, their family’s reaction to their singleness, and their self-identified category of singleness.
The interviews began with an explanation of the purpose of the study and an openended question such as “What does it mean to you to be single?” An effort was made to give each woman a chance to be heard as well as to encourage the participants to discuss the topics among themselves. As the groups continued, less time was spent on topics that seemed to have reached theoretical saturation and more time on new issues or underdeveloped topics.
All of the group interview sessions were transcribed. They were then read holistically by the first author, noting themes, interesting quotes, and so forth, on the transcript itself. Then the marked transcripts were read a second time in order to compare across individuals and groups. The themes that emerged from this analysis were used to develop a structured questionnaire for the second phase of the study.
Participants. Eighty-three questionnaires were sent out. Thirty-nine were returned in time to be included in the study, a response rate of 46.99%. A few women who had originally agreed to participate called to say that they could not complete the questionnaire because it made them feel too emotional or depressed.
Questionnaire. Two parallel versions of the questionnaire were developed, one for SAs and one for ASs. Each questionnaire had 10 sections. The first section contained demographic items on SES, occupation, education level, and category of singleness. The substantive portion of the questionnaire was divided into nine categories: being single (23 items), men (30 items), nurturing (8 items), daily life (13 items), peer networks (14 items), sex ( 10 items), grief ( 12 items), old age ( 11 items), and therapy (9 items). These categories had emerged as important themes in the lives of single women during the group interviews. Initial versions of the questionnaire were piloted with four single colleagues (2 AS and 2 SA women), revised, and prepared for distribution.
Completed questionnaires were returned by 21 AS women and 18 SA women. Respondents were encouraged to write explanations of their responses and comments on separate sheets of paper. Most (79%) did so. Their comments ranged in length from 0 to 22 pages with an average of 5.07 pages. The ASs tended to write more (X = 6.4 pages) than the SAs (X = 3.5 pages).
Data analysis. The questionnaires were numbered so that responses could be traced back to specific individuals. Then cross-case analyses were conducted separately for the SA and AS respondents. Responses to the closed items were tallied. Comments and responses to open-ended items were identified by respondent number and listed together verbatim on separate sheets of paper so they could be easily compared across cases. Then a theoretical memo (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) was written summarizing the responses to all of the items in each of the 10 sections for both ASs and SAs. When all of the sections had been summarized, assertions were developed that captured the general themes that had emerged from both phases of the study. These assertions were then taken back to the data for further clarification and refinement in a recursive, analytic process that continued until the researchers were satisfied that a parsimonious set of assertions, well-supported by the data, had been developed. In the final stages of the data analysis, the researchers used selective coding techniques (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) to identify and explicate the dominant storyline in the single women’s focus group conversations and questionnaire responses.
In order to maintain narrative flow in reporting the findings, specific words are used to represent numbers of participants. The words used and the number of participants represented by them are reproduced below:
Issues of reliability and validity. Some qualitative research is context-bound description. Such research usually flows from in-depth, single case studies (Moon & Trepper, in press). The findings from such studies are generally characterized by thick, narrative description and are judged by criteria of credibility and trustworthiness (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Other qualitative research, such as this study, uses multiple cases, triangulation, and a variety of analytic techniques to develop generalizable theory (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Moon & Trepper, in press; Rafuls & Moon, in press; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The findings from multiple-case studies are usually reported as theoretical propositions or as grounded theory and are judged by qualitative standards of reliability and validity.
The present study was a multiple-case phenomenological study conducted for the purpose of developing theoretical assertions about the experiences of midlife, single women. The reliability and validity of the study were enhanced by the use of a two-phase research design, triangulation of data sources and methods, criterion-based selection procedures, the large number of participants, the voluminous amounts of data collected, immersion in the data by the first author, constant-comparative data analysis, and peer debriefing.
The sample was heterogeneous with respect to several important demographic variables such as age, type of singleness, and dating/relationship status-enhancing the robustness of the assertions generated. However, the sample was fairly homogeneous with respect to other theoretically important variables. Most of the women were white, urban, middle class, professionals, and all were heterosexual. These demographic similarities limit the generalizability of the study and should be kept in mind when reading and interpreting the findings.
Many themes emerged from the questionnaire and the focus groups. However, there was one overriding issue that seems highly significant for family therapists: single women have unresolved or unrecognized ambivalences about being single. This assertion was supported by three subassertions: (a) women are aware of both the advantages and the drawbacks of being single, (b) women are ambivalent about the reasons for their singleness, and (c) although content with being single, many women simultaneously experience feelings of loss and grief.
Women Are Aware of Both the Advantages and the Drawbacks of Being Single Every woman in the focus groups and all but two of the questionnaire participants, ASs and SAs, felt that there were advantages to being single. The advantages can be generalized as freedom from caretaking a man; freedom for doing what they want, when they want, how they want; and freedom from having to answer to others in terms of time, decisions, and behaviors.
The words and phrases most frequently used to describe the advantages of being single were “I do what I want when I want,” “freedom,” “independence,” and “making my own decisions.” One woman added, “Taking pride in accomplishments and investments that have been accumulated over the years of being alone; having friends that care for you as a person and not as part of a couple; the solitude.” The women were also very clear about the advantages of not having to give up parts of themselves, of being able to resist what Anderson and Stewart ( 1994) call the “urge to merge” that often causes women in relationships to lose competent parts of themselves.
They identified many things that contributed to making life as a single woman meaningful. Primary were their interpersonal relationships with family and friends, closely followed by their work. Some of the other comments included “helping others gives meaning to my life.” “Beautiful days and nights . . . and flowers.” One SA mother said it was “The little successes . . . my boys helping without being asked, spending time picking strawberries, laughing with my friends at dinner, looking in the mirror and seeing an intelligent, attractive, very nice lady smile back.” In general, there were few differences between the ASs and the SAs when discussing the advantages of being single. However, the AS women seemed somewhat more likely to struggle with the question of the meaningfulness of their lives.
The women identified a much wider range of drawbacks to being single, with no specific differences between ASs and SAs. Divorced women, though, expressed little ambivalence about being single again. This may have been because they were contrasting their single life with their previous unhappy marriage. The most frequently mentioned drawbacks to not being married or remarried were the absence of being special to a man, the absence of touch, the absence of children, the lack of ready companionship and someone for sharing interests, and sadness about growing old alone. One woman made some of the generalizations concrete when she said that one drawback was not having “someone to help with back buttons.” Another drawback was the concern about how others would perceive them if they talked about the parts of being single they did not like. Therefore, they often did not share these feelings. “It hurts more to talk about being single. [Instead,] I appear [to others] to be strong and in control.” Or, as another woman said, “Others don’t understand. I don’t want to appear desperate.”
The AS and SA women expressed a significant difference in what they heard from others about their being single. The SAs felt they were likely to be envied; the ASs overwhelmingly felt that others pitied them, saw them as failures, or blamed them for their singleness. More than a few ASs said, “It is better to be divorced than never married.”
When asked their perceptions of family members’ reactions to their being single, there was no difference in regard to their mothers. Slightly more than half of ASs and SAs felt that their mothers were worried or concerned. However, twice as many of the SAs believed that their fathers were worried about them. (Although the women were asked about their siblings’ reactions, no clear trends emerged from the analysis of their responses.) Of significance, perhaps, is that slightly more than half of the women’s children were content.
The responses indicated an overlap between the advantages and the drawbacks of being single. For example, the freedom of not having to consult another around major decisions is clearly linked to the drawback of not having anyone with whom to share the responsibility of these decisions. In the second focus group, a mid-30-year-old AS woman described the interplay as follows:
I’m free to do a lot of self-disclosure. I’m free to work on me; I have energy to figure out who I am, where I’m going, without also having to work on a relationship …. The drawbacks, though, are that … part of me will only grow and develop within a relationship; that part of me will never be developed”
Women Are Ambivalent About the Reasons for Their Singleness
Ambivalence about reasons for singleness was related to locus of control, with women seemingly unaware that they switched between internalizing and externalizing the blame. The focus groups offered an opportunity to explore this ambivalence in depth. When asked why they were single or not remarried, every one of the women initially responded in terms of self-blame. Through their group discussion, however, they fleshed out a much more complex explanation.
For example, in one AS group, all of the women’s first responses related to why they were not emotionally ready for a relationship. Yet when they talked among themselves, they probed beyond that initial response and concluded that although women were becoming more assertive and wanting more emotional responsiveness in men, men were still looking for women “to take care of them” or “to be like their mothers.” All of these women complained that there were few appropriate potential men for them. One AS said, “I am more choosy now”; another added, “I have more discretion in my choice of men now [than when younger].” Then, as if they had never had the above conversation, the group switched back to taking responsibility for their singleness by identifying what was wrong with them as explanations for why men were not interested in them.
When the researcher pointed out this switch and the women were encouraged to explore the contradiction in their explanations, they raised the issue of control. They discovered that if they could identify a problem within themselves (they most often mentioned weight, intimacy, co-dependency, and low self-esteem), they felt they had a goal. They could fix the problem (lose weight, work on intimacy, stop being co-dependent, improve self-esteem) and then be able to find a partner. As one SA in her 40s said, “Well, I’d rather think I’m single [because of] my weight. Then I can do something about it.”
The majority of the divorced women did not blame themselves for the breakup of their marriage but did blame themselves for not finding another partner. In an SA group, a woman saw how she had blamed herself, then gave good explanations for why the man was not appropriate for her, then switched back to blaming herself. When this was pointed out, she said, “If asked again, I think I’d say the same thing again.” Those women who saw this pattern were clear that giving up self-blame was difficult because, in part, it meant giving up the control to make the situation better-to find a man.
Because of these complex responses in the group interviews, the questionnaire was designed to gain a broader understanding of how women understood their singleness. There were 12 questions addressing the reasons women believed they were single and their feelings about being single. For example, the women were asked, “Are you single by choice?” “How do you understand your being single?” “Do you believe you will ever marry?” “How will you feel if you never marry?” “Do you envision yourself still being interested in marriage in old age?” There was no consistency among their answers.
A striking example of ambivalence about reasons for being single was demonstrated by the responses to the question, “Are you single by choice?” The questionnaire responses were almost equally divided between “yes” and “no,” with more SAs responding “yes.” However, the comments explaining these responses were almost identical. “Yes, I am single by choice because I have not met anyone I want to marry.” “No, I am not single by choice because I have not yet met anyone I want to marry.” One AS, aware of the contradiction, bridged the two with, “Yes and no. I would rather not be single. However, I am not willing to date or marry just anyone to avoid being single.”
On the questionnaire, half of the women said they wished to be married and half said they did not, with more SAs answering in the negative. When asked if they expected to marry before old age, again it was about half and half. However, the half that believed they would never marry came from both sides of the prior questions about marriage. When asked if they were averse to marrying, only two said yes.
Self-blaming explanations for being single, in the questionnaire data, fell primarily into four categories: physical (big bust, overweight, fainting spells); personality (shyness, independence or dependence, lack of social skills, excessive or lack of competency); psychological (selfishness, low self-esteem, demandingness, vulnerability, sexually abused as child, co-dependent); and cognitive (too much or too little intelligence, learning disability). Although they all knew married women who had similar problems, they explained that those women must have had less serious problems, been more patient, less choosy, or more willing to compromise.
Contributing to their self-blame, especially for the ASs, were others’ comments about their singleness, for example, “You’re so smart/pretty, I’m surprised you haven’t found a man yet”; “You’re smart, you’ve taken the career route” “You’re too fussy”; “You’re not giving him a chance.” Whether they understood these comments to be positive or negative, the women did not appreciate them. However they chose to respond, they were left feeling defensive, angry, or guilty. Some of the women’s reactions included, “No matter what I say, it only makes it worse.” “I feel exasperated. Why should I have to defend myself?” “[I feel] hypocritical since I pretend it doesn’t bother me.”
At the same time that they blamed themselves, an overwhelming majority of women also wrote comments that laid blame on men. ASs and SAs, regardless of their age, complained that the men they were meeting were not able to deal with their intelligence, competence, assertiveness, accomplishments (etc.). Here are two typical comments: “I’ve been told I’m too assertive. I’m direct and honest. Men are put off by that.” “It scares them. Guys don’t want women who are smarter than they, unless they are looking for a mother.” And using almost the identical words, women in their 30s through 60s said, “I’m intelligent, have a responsible job, and money. This makes me inappropriate for 95% of the men I meet.”
What was most striking was that the women who held themselves and men accountable for their singleness did not seem aware that they held both views. At different times they gave full (or primary) responsibility for their singleness to themselves or to the menwithout reference to the alternative explanation.
Although Content With Being Single, Many Women Simultaneously Experience Feelings of Loss and Grief
On the questionnaire, the women’s degree of grief about not being a mother seemed directly related to their position as AS or SA. Twenty-five of the ASs were child free and only 5 of them were content without children. The others felt varying degrees of disappointment and loss. Of the nine SAs who were child free, five were content without children. Although most of the women (ASs and SAs) said they did not believe it was necessary to wait for marriage before parenting, only two (both ASs) had actually elected to adopt. Before giving up on children or making a decision to be a single parent, the women seemed to be waiting until some magic age, most often 40. One AS woman in her late 30s said, “I used to think I would wait until 30 before thinking about having a child by myself; as I get older, I keep pushing [the age] back.”
Another area of loss was related to the issue of searching for a man. An overwhelming majority of the ASs responding to the questionnaire felt they had lost a lot by investing so much time and energy in their earlier years focusing on men. “I didn’t appreciate my world [when I was younger.]” “I lost learning who I am, developing myself.” “I lost a lot of time.” However, they also recognized that there had been gains in the search: wisdom and experience, independence, toughness, and knowing what is important in a relationship.
Currently, only a few women said they were wasting time when they were not looking for a man (n = 8). However, many described an internal struggle around this. Below are similar comments from two very different single women. * I try to do things that I like doing, that may provide an opportunity for meeting men. But I don’t feel I have wasted time if I don’t meet anyone because it was something I wanted to do anyway. Well, now that I think about it, I do feel like I’m wasting time when I clean house or spend time alone doing things at home that have to be done, however, when I could be [out] meeting people. (42-year-old SA)
* I think I should move to an apartment where hopefully there would be men my age or play golf or take up dancing or go to Elder Hostel. This isn’t so urgent a feeling as it was in the past, though. (64-year-old AS).
In the questionnaire, most women said they would not do anything different with their lives if they knew for sure they would never marry or remarry. However, in the focus groups, although most of the women’s first responses were no, they would not do anything different, as a result of the group discussion, almost all of them concluded that it would have an impact. The typical effects would be to change jobs or go back to school-both for more enjoyment and for more income. They also said there would be relief in knowing they would not marry because although they would be sad, at least they would know for sure.
This is directly related to another major loss-the lack of assurance about the future. Singlehood can be experienced as an ambiguous loss (Boss, 1991), for at no point do women know for sure if they will marry in the future. As long as there is hope of marriage, there is the pain of the ambiguity. As so many women, ASs and long time SAs, said, “It’d be easier if I just knew for sure, then I could adjust fine.” They could grieve the loss of their dreams and move on. Without this clarity, there is no closure. As one woman said, “If I knew for sure I would never meet a man, I could get on with my life. Without that, it becomes my life.”
The study suggests that single women are keenly aware of both the many advantages and the drawbacks of being in a committed relationship with a man. Is their ambivalence any different, though, than the ambivalence married women may experience about being married? Without research on this question, there is only speculation, but both the findings of the study and the literature review suggest that many single women still experience social pressure to be married, whereas married women have no similar pressure to be single. Furthermore, married women can decide to change their marital status, as divorced SAs have done. Although married women may have fears about their finances, their ability to live independently, their children’s welfare, or being single, they still have more control over their decision to change their status than single women do. The women in this study felt that while they did have control over looking for an appropriate partner, they had none over finding one.
Women’s ambivalences about being single have implications for both family therapy clinical practice and research. If, as this study suggests, women’s ambivalence about their singleness is often unrecognized and/or unresolved, family therapists need to be alerted to the subtleties of women’s dichotomous feelings and to the impact that family perceptions of their singleness have on their lives. And since so little research has been done on single women, this study opens many avenues for further exploration. The discussion below focuses on the clinical and research implications of the study.
Therapists working with single women need to listen for overt as well as more subtle ambivalent feelings about being single. Although not an issue for all single women, it may be important to help many single women recognize and/or resolve their contradictory feelings about being single. A frequent contradiction in the study revolved around identity as a single woman. Therapists need to help women clarify whether they are articulating their public or private beliefs, their conscious or unconscious beliefs. That is, some women may say what they believe is socially and politically correct or what will counter the family’s pessimism about being single, while not mentioning other feelings they may be having, such as being lonely for a relationship. This is different from those women who say one thing without any conscious awareness that their behaviors demonstrate something very different. Therapists need to appreciate the multiplicity and complexity of a woman’s feelings about being single.
Therapists need to be careful not to participate inadvertently in a woman’s self-blame. Therapists may perpetuate the stigma of being single by seeing a woman’s singleness as a sign of her inability to establish intimacy. Although a single woman may have problems with intimacy, talking first about the pathology perpetuates self-blame and stereotypes, and it may re-create blaming comments she hears from her parents and extended family. In this light, therapists need to use caution when they look for and hence find “personal neurosis” in a single woman’s childhood and psyche (Papp, 1988, p. 377). If, as the study suggests, women assume blame in hopes of taking control, therapists need carefully to question women’s self-blaming comments. Do these comments, in part, assist women in not seeing the problems a man is presenting in the relationship?
On the other hand, therapists may perpetuate the glamorization of the single life by reiterating the advantages of being single and the reality that a woman can live a successful productive life without a man. It is important to assess each client in terms of her own comfort level with her singleness. While some women may need help focusing on positive aspects of being single, others may need permission to acknowledge their grief or disappointment. What is most useful is validating their reality, helping them explore other perspectives about being single, and acknowledging for them that being heterosexual without a man can be difficult and lonely for those wanting a partner. A third way therapists may avoid perpetuating a woman’s self-blame is by taking seriously her complaints about the lack of emotionally available men (Lewis, 1994). Hite’s (1989) study of 2,000 married women found a similar dissatisfaction with men. Women in this study of single women were clear that they want marriage only if the man is willing to take equal responsibility for the concrete and emotional components of the relationship. Without this mutuality (Jordan, 1991), they claimed to prefer remaining single.
Therapists need to consider many possible explanations for a single woman’s depression. There are several possible explanations for how depression can be related to singleness. One explanation for a single woman’s depression could be unresolved grief. She may have spent many childhood hours thinking about her wedding dress, about how her future husband’s last name sounds with her first name, about who should be in her bridal party, about the children she would have one day, and so on. When grief work does not relieve a woman’s depression about being single, therapists might describe the concept of singleness as an ambiguous loss. Giving a more accurate label to the feeling may help assuage some of the depression.
Another explanation could be that the emphasis a woman has placed on men has detoured her from thinking about developing herself or what else might give meaning to her life. So her depression may be related to this lack of personal growth and the lack of meaningfulness in life. The depression might also be related to her sense of failure at an important job (finding a man). Devoting much time and energy to a project only to have it continually fail is often a valid cause for depression.
The depression also might be related to a woman’s attempted solution to her singleness. As some women in the study said, adopting a self-blaming explanation for their singleness allows them to identify a problem that they can then attempt to fix.
Little is known about any connection between depression and the lack of physical contact for single women. We do know that for infants, touch deprivation can lead to depression and failure to thrive (Spitz, 1945, 1946). However, there is no research about the effect of touch deprivation on unpartnered single women. This study did not ask specifically about it, but many women made comments such as “I miss his touch,” “I miss cuddling more than intercourse,” “I realized the only person I had touched all week was the doorman.” Lack of physical contact was almost always listed as one of the drawbacks of being single. Therefore, it seems possible that some of the depression single women experience, especially those without children or close friendships, may be related to touch deprivation.
Therapists need to help single women recognize underutilized resources. Many single women are knowledgeable about resources for enjoying a satisfying single life (Anderson & Stewart, 1994; Peterson, 1982; Walters et al., 1988). Therapists need to assess the resources their clients already have and open new avenues of resources-ones the women may not have considered. These resources may be less directly related to finding men than to providing more satisfaction in their single lives-for however long they are single.
One type of resources that may be added are rituals. Rituals provide structure and validation for a life (Wolin & Bennett,1984). However, most rituals are based around married life, for example, engagement, weddings, christenings, anniversaries (Imber-Black & Roberts, 1992). Since single women have few models for life-affirming rituals, therapists can help women establish their own. For example, some women in the study had regular summer or holiday vacations with friends. Other possible rituals might be to celebrate a job promotion, a new home, the annual birthday. They can also be used to create a positive bridge between work and home and to enhance meal times (Imber-Black & Roberts, 1992).
Another avenue is an assessment of a woman’s close friendship network. Many women think about emotional intimacy only in terms of their sexual partners. However, this study supports others (Eichenbaum & Orbach, 1987; Hite, 1989; Pogrebin, 1987) that claim women can get their emotional needs met from the important women in their lives. Therefore, therapists can talk with women about how well they are nurturing these friendships. Are they expecting less from a close friend than from a lover? Do they take their good friends for granted? Do they invest as much energy into their close women friends as they do their lovers? Are these close friendships gratifying or growing stale?
Therapists need to help women assess how they fare with the eight developmental tasks for adult singles. Lewis (1994) described eight nonsequential developmental tasks for moving through adult singlehood (Table 2). If a woman has succeeded at these developmental tasks, she has a home that reflects who she is and “belongs” to her; she has friends who enhance her personal and professional growth and who meet her social and intimacy needs. She recognizes her basic daily needs at work and at home, has established rituals that enhance her life, uses her free time in enriching and empowering ways. She has made an active decision (not a de facto one) about children. She has found ways to nurture others and let others nurture her, being aware of the difference between mutual nurturance and unilateral caretaking.
She acknowledges her sexual feelings and has found enhancing ways to deal with them when not in a sexual relationship. She has accepted the ambiguity of being single, has grieved her lost childhood dreams, and avoids absorbing, as if her own, others’ grief about her singleness. She has made peace with her parents, teaching them how to treat her as an adult single, accepting the positives from them and avoiding the unhealthy and conflictual aspects from them. She has financially and emotionally prepared for old age-even though she may hope never to be old and single.
This list of tasks can be used with single women to help validate how well they are doing in establishing a fulfilling life without a man. It is also useful in helping women who are stuck. Often, going over the list can pinpoint unrecognized areas that may be causing the depression, for example, lack of professional or financial success or loneliness.
Future Research Implications
This study was an exploratory examination of the perceptions that single women have of their singleness. Like most exploratory studies, it has limitations. Minority, rural, lower class, poor, and homosexual women are underrepresented. The questionnaire sample may be biased due to the low response rate, a possibility that is reinforced by the fact that some of the nonrespondents told the researcher that they were upset by the questionnaire. This suggests that they may have been less comfortable with being single than those who chose to respond.
However, the study has strengths as well. It included women from several age groups and both major categories of singleness. It utilized accepted qualitative methods for enhancing reliability and validity, such as triangulation and constant comparative analysis, and included a fairly large number of participants for a multiple-case study. One of the most important functions of exploratory studies is to raise questions for future research. Since the topic of single women is so uncharted, dozens of avenues for future research were suggested by this study. We have chosen to focus on five areas that we feel are particularly relevant to family therapists.
Phenomenological methods can help researchers clarify the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of single women in a variety of contexts. Based on our experiences with group interviewing and open-ended questionnaires, it seems that future research on single women would benefit from phenomenological methods that allow participants’ voices to be heard, addressing gaps in our knowledge about women and their experiences that concern feminist family therapists (Avis & Turner, in press). Individual, in-depth interviews provide deeper understanding of the perspectives of particular women and allow exploration of the complexity of women’s feelings about their singleness. Phenomenological methods can help researchers distinguish between women’s public and private views of their singleness and between their conscious and unconscious feelings about themselves. Such research might also target women in transition from marriage to singleness or singleness to marriage in order to explore the changing perceptions of self and others that occur during these transitions. Similarly, phenomenologists might explore single women’s perceptions of therapy, therapists, and effective therapeutic interventions. And finally, phenomenological research is helpful for examining how others, particularly extended family members, perceive single adults.
Researchers can clarify the differences between different types of single women and between single women and single men. What are the differences between ASs and SAs (divorced and widowed) in different age categories (e.g., under 30 years, between 30 and 65 years, over 65 years) and across specific issues? Are there significant differences between women who are not dating at all, casually dating, or in a committed relationship? Is there a difference between women who have been single or single again for many years and those who have been single again for only a few years? Are there differences for women from different racial, ethnic, socio-economic class backgrounds; from happily married, unhappily married, or divorced parents? Are there any differences between single (unpartnered) women who are heterosexual or homosexual? Do lesbians feel they carry a double stigma; are they freed from the internal mandate to be mated? What about single men? Their gender socialization clearly differs from that of single women. Are their experiences of singleness also different from those of women?
Researchers can clarify the differences between single women and married women. What differences exist in the personal, professional, and/or leisure goals of single and married women? How do the stressors and resources in the lives of single women compare to those of married women? Are women who claim to prefer remaining single opposed to a life partner or only to marriage? Is there any merit to the suggestion made by some single women that being single makes it easier to focus on personal growth while being married makes it easier to focus on relationships? Can women focus on both, regardless of whether they are married or single?
How do these two groups of women use their weekends and free time? The data from the focus groups of this study suggested that some women believed their free time would be more fulfilling if they were married. What are the implications of any differences that exist for therapists working with married women who are considering divorce or single women who are considering marriage? How might therapists help married women realize more of the benefits of singleness-freedom, independence, personal growth, and autonomy? Researchers can investigate the role of rituals in the lives of single women. Wolin and Bennett (1984) say rituals are necessary for providing life structure; therefore, we need to know more about the ways that rituals structure the lives and transitions of single women. This research concurs with the work of Imber-Black and Roberts (1992), who note that traditional, societal rituals are lacking for single women. Therefore, future research might investigate the ways that therapists could help single women create rituals for the important events (e.g., job promotion) and transitions (e.g., first purchased home) in their lives.
Researchers can investigate single women in therapy. What therapeutic approaches and techniques work best with which types of single women? How is family therapy different when a family is headed by a single female than when a family is headed by a single male or a couple? How might family therapists help a single woman decide whether to adopt a child? What issues are important for therapists to address when married women are considering a transition back to singleness or single women are considering a transition into a relationship? How might friendships be dealt with in family therapy with single women? What other relational issues are relevant to therapy with single women?
In conclusion, this study provides family therapists with a glimpse at the complex inner lives of single women and the ambivalent feelings that they have about their singleness in a social context that tends either to stigmatize or to glamorize the single life. Adult singleness is a life stage that everyone experiences for varying durations at varying times. We hope that this study will encourage family therapists to focus more of their clinical, theoretical, and research resources on developing an understanding of the single life and its impact on relationships and families.
The authors wish to thank Joanne Kipnis, MSW, and Shirley Salmon, MSW, for their assistance with the videotaping of the focus groups and transcribing the tapes. We also give a special thanks to the women who participated in the study.
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Karen Gail Lewis, EdD, is in private practice, 1109 Spring Street, Suite 803, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
Sidney Moon, PhD, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907-1446.
Copyright American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Apr 1997
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